Dandelions on a Summer Lawn

Dandelion

I remember watching bumblebees fly by for hours angled in the crook of my mother’s arm, waiting for the sun to stop shining. She was 32 and dying, her womb assaulted by blooming cancer that spread like dandelions on a summer lawn. I’d wait for her to come out of the kitchen, leave the bathroom, and would scare her as if I could scare the cancer out of her, like it was nothing more than a bad case of the hiccups. It never worked.

She took me with on trips to the hospital, and I’d watch chemo drugs drip like morning dew off the petal of a flower. I’d sit patiently with my hands in my lap as she pulled over and vomited, hold what was left of her hair back if she made it home and got to the toilet. It was hard for her to keep food down, but she cooked prodigiously, made great banquets though we were the only two eating. I ate everything that was put on my plate, even the peas. Even when it was just okay, I thanked my mom as if this was The Best Dish of All Time.

I held out hope for the R word–remission. Mom knew it wasn’t likely, but I believed the way only children believe: with a fervor that had no time for chance or likelihood. We made a game of counting off the weeks she’d stayed alive, a morbid game of pattycake with my head in her lap, looking up at her as if she were a goddess sending her golden light of love my way.

It got so she couldn’t do much other than cook and get back to bed. When she was in bed, I’d sneak out the old photo album, the one I wasn’t allowed to see, and look at the shots of Mom wearing short shorts and riding on the back of a motorcycle. It was like looking into an alternate reality. I’d make up games where I was an adventurer come to save my sleeping queen. I got bonus points if I could enter the lair where the dragon kept the queen without waking her up. When I got to the bedside of my queen, I’d stab an invisible sword into her womb and vanquish the dragon once and for all.

When I got older, I’d question whether she would’ve gotten the cancer in the first place if she’d never had me. That I was complicit in it somehow. I’d pore over medical statistics and scholarly journals looking for the proof I so desperately wanted (or didn’t want) to find. It wasn’t conclusive either way.

When Mom’s hair got thin enough, she gave me the clippers and let me have the honor of shaving her bald. Mom laughed when I got started. The laughter turned to tears soon enough, and I asked her if I should stop. All she could say was, “Keep going, keep going.” The hair collected at our feet in golden wisps like sunlight pouring in off the horizon, tendrils of it blinding you even as it gives you life.

Mom would take me outside when she could and make a game of picking me up by my hands, spinning around till I could only see a blur of color and her at center, always still, always calm, like this was all the world was, just spinning, and how I laughed and laughed and laughed. She’d let me down gently and all around me everything was a blur except for her. I’d jump up and down and say, “Again! Again!” and if she had enough energy, we’d go for another round.

I was eight years old when my mother passed away. Eight and tiny and clinging to the hem of her shirt as if to cling was to keep her alive. I dialed 911 just like she taught me to do, but there was nothing left to be done. I was put into the care of my grandparents, who came and collected me right away.

The funeral was peaceful, calm. The sun shone into the parlor and lit up the tiles on the floor till you couldn’t be sure if the sun was inside. Outside the window, I watched as bumblebees flew lazily by in dipping swirls and zigzags, making their way the only way they knew how.

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What’s in Your Pockets

For what it’s worth, the way you’re doing it is right, precisely because there’s no right way of doing it. So there’s that. Nothing for you to worry about, really. No, I’m not hiding my derision behind my smile, it’s just how I look when I smile at people, I guess. No, I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic with the “I guess.” It’s just how I talk. Yes, I’m here because I care about you. There isn’t any other reason. No, I know it’s not like what they show on TV. I know it’s a personal experience that I can’t begin to insist I, like, understand at all. I can just see how it affects you. All I have to go on are your words and your appearance. No, that wasn’t meant as a dig against the way you dress. Again with the whole no right way of doing it thing. Yes, I support you no matter what. But if you’ve fallen off the wagon there will be consequences. No, I’m not trying to threaten you. I just want you to know that your actions have consequences. Okay, that was a bit patronizing and bitchy of me to say. I see that now. I apologize. No, I’m not apologizing just to placate you. I mean it. I just think there’s a time in a person’s life where they get down into deep psychic hurt, like bottom-out hurt, like plunging into icy water with no land in sight hurt. Yes. It is. Yes, that’s where I see you right now. And it’s– Yes, it’s scaring the shit out of me. Because I look at you and I wonder which picture of you they’ll use when they talk about you on the news. No, I’m not trying to be dramatic. Yes, I know you can make it through to the Other Side because you’ve already been to the Other Side. No, this isn’t any different. The only thing that’s different is the time and the place. I know you have memory issues. The Fog. I get it. No, I’m not trying to play doctor, it’s just that you’ve had a set of recurring symptoms that come back every time you use again. No, it’s– Yes it is. It is using. That’s the word for it. That’s the nice word for it, if anything. Yes, I do believe it accurately describes your situation. I just think that you have no concept of, like, how to get out of this black hole that you’re spaghettifying towards right now, as we speak. Spaghettification is happening and I’m worried that we won’t be able to un-stretch you this time. It’s just a chance. An opportunity. You don’t have to call it by any other name. You are the sole keeper of you. All I can do is darken your door and stay by your side. It’s like when I found you in the snow that one winter, how you nearly frostbit your ass, your hands. You stayed off for six months after that. And we were proud. Are proud. I am. But listen. You have to hand me what’s in your pockets. You have to rifle through your hiding spots and give me everything. All of it. If you’re in this, you’re in this. Because. All right. Let me tell you a story. When I was 4 and 5 and 6 my dad molested me. Made me put on dresses that he had to “adjust.” Would belt me when I resisted, so the welts were like little inching worms. I called them my little gummy worms and would watch every day as they burrowed under my skin before finally disappearing. It stopped for a few years. But then I’m 13 and developing. Mom’s working late more and more. Dad’s beer breath makes my eyes water. When it happened I was in the shower, singing some Christina Aguilera song. He opened the door quietly. I didn’t know to lock it then. It happened in the shower, his clothes soggy and sticking to me as we both slipped around and took down the shower curtain, nearly smashed our heads into the wall. The bruises on my wrists didn’t go away for weeks. So I report him. Tell them everything. Dad goes away and I go to the Center. At the Center they make you do groups and art therapy and meds and the whole nine. Mom got diagnosed the first week I was in there. I stayed so long that I could chart her cancer fight through how much more hair was gone this week, when she started to wear hats and bandanas. You get it. Mom says we’re fighting this together. Whatever this is, we’re fighting it. Every day she visits I’m losing more of her, like she’s fading away into the background. I ask her how she feels and she says big and strong. Every time I ask her, even when her body is caving in on itself, this is what she tells me. “I’m feeling big and strong.” Then one day she doesn’t show up. The doctors are too-nice to me. I know before they tell me. Graduate from the Center the next week. Woohoo. And you know the rest. Foster care. Group homes. Working. Getting my own place. All of that. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m saying all of this. I don’t know the reason. But I do know you. I do know you. Yeah? You mean it? For real this time? All right. Okay. Let’s start with what’s in your pockets.

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From the Outside

When you get back in and close the patio door to the lightning bugs trying to Morse code their way inside, your mother’s hand on the bathroom floor will limp-grab the door, try to open it, fail, then open, palm-upwards, like it’s Sunday Mass and she’s waiting for communion, and there will be a wine cooler pool beneath her head, empty pill bottle next to it, eyes arcing an orbit from right to left, then disappearing behind lids, and you’ll sit her up the way you did last time, scoot her over to the tub and run the water and the way she’ll fight you as you touch your finger to the back of her throat, but the pills will have taken away much of her strength and the pills will come back up, half-formed, like the sickle of a moon you’d point your telescope at on nights when the light pollution cleared and you could see more than just a couple stars, while your mother moves in delirious ways now, swaying into the tub where the water’s already swirling the pills into a whirlpool, reaching for the ones she can grab hold of and trying to bring them back to her mouth like a toddler with a clump of dirt, pulling now at the shower curtain, bringing the rod down onto her, curtain in the water, splashed at and making warbled sounds, the water getting into your eyes, and when you try to clear the water from your eyes she’ll catch your ear with her palm and you’ll tumble into the tub and onto the curtain, water still running, pills still circling the drain but not able to find it for the plug that’s covering it, and her arms will become a flurry behind you, bringing you to your back so your eyes are just underwater and everything is a foggy bubble world of ever shifting things, and your mother’s hands will seem limp even as they clutch your throat, the warble of the water hitting plastic even louder here, under the water, where the bathroom’s light warps and bends like a faulty sun in a patchy sky, your feet kicking like two limp fish beached on a pier, hooks in mouths or maybe already down their throats, tugging at vital insides, and you’ll come up just long enough to hear the way your mother’s slurring her words, voicing them ceaselessly, not meaning anything but saying them anyway, her eyes two pale rocks you’d skip across a quiet lake, etched in, looking at you as you hear the way your breath sounds like it’s coming from somewhere outside of you, when you can take it, for just the second you’re out of the water, before going back down again, some of the water going in your mouth and down your throat, icing your stomach, your clothes plastered to the frame of your child’s body, socks slipping halfway down your feet and already soggy, her nails sliding around your neck like ice skates on fresh ice, falling into grooves and slipping out of them again, the pills orbiting like planets above your eyes, water rising higher so you can’t reach the surface, shower rod clanging onto the floor and sounding here underwater like a bell being tolled in a town far away from here, your mother slipping on the water that’s spilled onto tile and so sliding forward, forcing head’s back against tub’s porcelain, your eyes pulling open to let in more light, bubbles from your mouth popping at the surface, everything edged in black now, hazy and indistinct like the world in a fog on a summer’s night, and when you call out it’s a sound apart from you, a noise you’ve never heard before, and the rest of the water comes in, spilling, and the way the black looks when it comes in and wraps you up is like waking and sleeping at once, pulling yourself away from yourself so you can see, finally, what it all looks like from the outside.

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Anterograde

Try Luvox. Try Buspar. Try Prozac, but that’s too obvious. Don’t try the benzos. Any of them. They’re what got you into this mess in the first place, you’re sure of it. So try CBT. Try EMDR. Try ECT and play therapy and art therapy and Rexulti and ecotherapy and journaling. Don’t try Fernet-Branca. Or Montpelier. Or PBR. Or the wine that comes in the little box at the convenience store. They’re what got you into this mess in the first place, you’re sure of it. You can try casual sex, although the science is lacking in re: to its effectiveness in treating what you’ve got. But it can’t hurt. Just be safe. Be smart. Try picturing your brain as an endless field of untouched snow, you standing at center, taking steps but not leaving any. Looking ahead and seeing chips of undisturbed light. Looking behind and seeing same. Knowing you got here somehow, but the details eluding you. Slipping from your grasp. A robber of sanity, these memories. Memories are what got you into this mess in the first place, you’re sure of it.

Try starting a fight in a Walmart. Take a big bouncy ball out of its ballcage and whip it at the first person you see. Spike a second ball just to see how far it’ll bounce back. Try to take out a ceiling tile with one if you can. But try not to get caught. If you do, tell them you don’t remember why you did it. You’ll be more right than you know. Try stealing the 92 bus when it inevitably stops at the Dunkin’ Donuts and the driver steps out for a medium coolatta. Maybe the adrenaline of the steal will help clear things up. At the very least, it should be interesting. Again, try not to get caught. Try hopping your neighbor’s fence; commandeer their swimming pool when they’re not home. Try putting seran wrap over the top, tight, with weights at all four corners to keep it in place. You may need a willing participant for this one. Try holding your breath for as long as you can. Try squeezing your face past the wrap, to breathe, without puncturing it. Try to feel alive. The next time you see an ambulance, try following it to the hospital. Try getting inside with the EMTs. Wear scrubs at all times just for this possibility. Try sneaking into the pharmacist’s. Try taking everything you see, especially the antipsychotics, the psychotropics, the antidepressants, but NOT the benzos. They’re what got you into this mess. Etc.

Try visiting your mother in the home. Not her home or your home, but the home. Even our pronouns get taken from us with age. Try holding a conversation with her. When she thinks you’re her father, try going along with it. Try letting her air all her grievances out. Try apologizing for all the things “you” did, taking the heat for decades worth of shit you weren’t even alive for. Try playacting her childhood, with pet rocks and hula-hoops and silly putty newspaper comics. Try telling her you miss her but catch it in your throat, like a popfly in centerfield in little league, sun in your eyes, squinting to see it but it’s no good, it’s already in your glove. Etc. Try not to notice when she shits herself. Try to seem casual when the CNA asks if you want to come back when they’re done with cleanup and you tell her no, you’ll stay here. Try to look out the window, where there’s a mama bird attempting a feeding. Attempting because her regurgitation falls past her baby’s mouth, splats half on the ground, half on an unfortunate passerby. Try to explain the situation to the CNA, but stop because she’s already got enough to deal with, thank you very much.

Try to make it easy when you say goodbye. Try to pull your fare out of your pocket and step on without looking back. Try to sit next to an expectant mother and stop yourself from picturing all the possibilities lying dormant inside of her: president or scientist or murderer or… Try to feel what it was like without the haze, the fog, lens out of focus, a human camera is what you are. Try to remember something. Try to remember something. Try to remember something.

You don’t have to try to forget.

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Playing in Reverse

They put us in charge of a petri dish in fifth grade life science. Made us mayors of our very own amoeba city. At home I set the microcosmopolis on kitchen counter uncluttered by hospital bills, unplugged the toaster to make room for my microscope. They consumed their prey the way I imagined the disease was taking my father: closing in and around, enveloping, like a nurse encircling him in curtain on bad days when I’d “just have to come back tomorrow.”

I did my homework in the waiting room. When it rained, the drops became paramecia; a hidden universe, something you couldn’t see but knew was there. I asked Dad if amoebae could contract AIDS, if he thought they’d have hospitals and single-celled doctors and nurses and sons. He looked out the window and laughed so I couldn’t see his eyes. Sent me off with a buck to get a rice krispy treat.

Mom took to sleeping on the couch, blanket as shawl. She’d go out only to drive me to the hospital, stopping in front of the entrance and letting me out. Said she had things to do when I’d ask. After a while I stopped asking. I showed Dad the sketches I made in between sips of water I’d help with, Dad’s lips contorting to find the straw, cheeks caving in on themselves. He’d pencil in party hats, villainous moustachios.

Dad’s face had a tributary system of veins running down the edges of his eyes, pooling in bags, skin melting like an ice cream on the sidewalk with gumballs for eyes. I asked Dad if he fucked another man like I was asking for an extra bag at the grocery store. I filled in some cilia, labelled cell walls. He asked where I’d heard that, but his voice quivered. We looked out into the rain, at the drops racing each other to nothing down the window.

In the onset of summer I watched puddles evaporate from the outside in. Dad was a hundred pounds, subsisting on grapes and coffee, the only things he could manage to keep down. The wrinkled hand of evolution had brought us to shore, onto land and out of our burrows, into the trees and out of them again, through huts and under blankets in hospital rooms, taking in energy and putting out our own, teeth chewing and eyes seeing and voices carrying. Withering in beds but telling stories anyway.

Together we wrote a story about an astronaut marooned from his ship, still in radio contact with the rest of the crew but with no points of reference to guide them to him, only endless black punctuated by a few blinding pinpricks in all that emptiness. Of space-swimming with no propulsion to help, just drifting wherever. Another about a man who lost his face, condemned to a life of wandering endless countryside in search of it, all the land indistinguishable to him, just one big canvas his steps would paint on. We wrote fast.

I was home when they called. Mom picked up, told me to go in the other room, play with my science experiment. The silence of her listening as I eavesdropped from the kitchen. As I took a napkin and brought darkness to the petri dish. Mom’s breath like a punctured tire letting out its air. Me grabbing the matches from the cupboard they were hidden in. Running the tiny flame around napkin’s edge till it was burning from the outside in. The fire fizzling out in spots but me putting more napkins on, paper plates. The fire rising. Catching the curtains and travelling upward, like opposite raindrops playing in reverse.

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Night, Dawn, Day

When it’s time to paint, I paint. Flecks of the barn’s old red come off in chips on the roller and mingle with the new white until I get pink. I climb down the ladder, dip the thing in acetate, help Phil out with his nebulizer. His vapor mixes with the early morning fog till you can’t be sure it isn’t all coming from him. His machine pumps out medicine over hills, across lakes, past the stalks of corn in their ordered lines and rows. To heal him you’ll have to heal the whole world first.

So I paint, and Phil sits, in Grandpa’s old rocker, over the feed. The chickens one-eye him as they scuttle over–pecking once, twice, retreating. Some of them are afraid of the machine’s constant hum, the way it clicks and whirs. Phil says I missed a spot; Darth Vaders it between breaths. I’ve only laid a checkerboard square of white on the great expanse of red. I spin the roller to rain paint on my big brother. It lands in droplets like stars on the sky of his bald head. The cows come in to watch, or else get at the greener grass, depending on your perspective. Phil picks up a cow chip and frisbees it at me. It explodes on the rung under my feet. Tiny, oblong versions of me reflect in racing lines of white paint.

We break at noon, Phil with his arm around my neck. Like a chokehold. Like it’s not to keep him standing. Sandwiches in triangle halves on Mom’s doily plates, her not around to insist they’re for special occasions only. Us eating standing up, or at least Phil doing it till his lungs burn, then sitting. Dad’s voice used to collect gravel when he’d ask where my manners were, till “manners” came out as a growl. Phil would try not to laugh, always did anyway.

So we go to the barn. For old time’s sake. For forgetting tomorrow’s surgery. We find Dad’s chew in an old Altoids tin, the “oids” rusted out so it’s just “Alt.” As if there could be any alternative. The sickly smell of it as we pack boluses to the right cheek, then the left to get the taste away. Spitting it out and running to the pump, spit like mud, and washing our mouths out with water we once lit on fire.

We dig into cobwebbed boxes nailed shut, pull out the snowshoes we used to make the crop circles that summer, corn stalks crunching beneath our feet. Phil disappeared into our maize maze, left me to look over the map: crayon on construction paper. Dad came outside to two stalk clusters rustling on a windless day. Went in with his shotgun. Found me first. Kept it raised even after he knew it was only me. Wondered what in creation I was doing. Our crop circle stayed like that, half-completed, till harvest time. A botched landing we’d be reminded of for the next three months.

We stand in the barn, in isosceles light coming through the door. Phil’s wearing Grandpa’s uniform. The thing is ill-fitting now as then, now for a very different reason. Phil salutes with his bony arms, knocks out cannula from nostrils with a smile. Cough-laughs as I fix it for him. I take a pic and he warns me not to post it, insists he can still kick my ass, you know.

He wants something to break; something to shoot. We go out back with a box of pellets, the doily plates, Dad’s gun. The fresh paint’s at our backs. It leaches fumes into the air, even out here, with endless corn to soak it up. We’re losing daylight, so I paint between his shots. Spin plates into cloudless sky like UFO polaroids we used to fake and send to Dateline, Art Bell, anyone we thought might take them. Plate chips rain over dirt, and Phil’s laughing so hard it sounds like he’s surfacing after a deep dive. Risking the bends but not caring either way.

I finish painting at sundown; hurry back to the barn for what we need. Rip the “for sale” sign out of dirt Grandpa used to till, his grandpa before him. Lodge pellets into it, rapid fire, airborne, spinning fast: sign, post, sign, post.

We lay out the chairs. Set up the projector. Put on the old zombie trilogy, like we’re only kids on Halloween: Night, Dawn, Day.

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Dad’s Weekend

When it was Dad’s weekend I’d find him at the end of the block with that week’s bike, usually pegged so I could hang on the back, or if I was lucky he’d be one-handing an old BMX next to him, my ride for the next three days till we had to dump it so the cops wouldn’t catch on. If Mom asked, he called us a cab. Mom never asked. Mom told me to have a good time over the forced dialogue of her soaps.

Most weekends we’d hit up the payphones en route to the mall, scooping out abandoned coins from slots and putting them in my Mickey Mouse wallet which was in fact a backpack for an impossibly tiny person. We’d need most of our change for food, so we rationed out one prank call each. Mine revolved around running refrigerators at first, but Dad set me straight. He once convinced an elderly lady he was her long lost son back from the war. Evacuated a department store based on “reports” of a bomb threat. Dad was a real pro.

When we made it to the mall, first thing we’d do was swap our inner tube caps with the coolest ones we could find in the parking lot; let a little air out first if we got them from a Jag or Beemer. It was important that we ride in style, even if the bikes weren’t permanent.

There’s a way of hyper-extending your arm to the point of possible breakage to reach in the hole where the claw game’s prizes go and pry numb fingers around whatever you find there. I was lookout till Dad showed me how, then we swapped roles. If the stretch hurt my elbow, Dad would snatch a to-go bag from the food court’s Taco Bell, load it up with ice and tie it around my arm like some demented pool floatie. The TB had an old Polaroid of Dad tacked to the wall, but we always seemed to make it out okay.

For Pokémon card machines he’d pull out his special quarters. Special quarters were regular quarters with five-pound test tied to them, the fishing line thin and strong enough to regurgitate the coin once I got my Blastoise, or Mewtwo, or (let’s be honest) Rattata. Every damn time, Dad would ask if I got the right Pokey-mon. Like that, too. Pokey. I’d nod and smile even if it was like a water energy, because if I didn’t, he’d pull the same con twice. Even at seven I knew you didn’t pull the same con twice.

We’d stop for lunch at this Chinese restaurant, one of the few places still willing to accept loose change as payment. I stacked my water chestnuts as I ate, same as the coins stacked after our meal: towers of quarters, nickels, dimes, and the way they’d count them in silence.

After that we’d stop at Blockbuster to undertake Dad’s life’s work. Every week he’d take a video and pile it in the hotel bathtub with the rest, bathroom tile as cutting room floor as he unspooled film from one tape, cut and spliced it with film from another, checked the edit with liberated reading glasses, assembled the master tape one frame at a time. Dad said it’d be the greatest film ever made once it was finished. He’d been working on it ever since he and Mom got divorced, three years of tapes, garbage-bagging them whenever a hotel kicked him out so he could continue his life’s work somewhere else.

Every weekend would end with him pouring tiny liquor bottles he swiped that week into an old Jim Beam, an alcoholic mad scientist fumbling with his beakers, and me peeking through door’s crack, strictly off limits, trying to catch a glimpse of a cell whenever Dad held his work up to the light. And the way the tiny bottles would scatter on the tile, plastic and so shatterproof, and at most he’d get another two seconds of his masterpiece done. And how we’d dump our bike(s) in a new spot each time, Dad insisting they’d end up in the right hands, whatever that meant, and us walking alongside the railroad tracks, Dad leaving a trail of tiny bottles behind us in case we got lost on the way, though we never once did.

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Just Say Cheese

The best way to remember that trip is in Dad’s smile as the raindrops watered his phoenix hair. I say phoenix because after he quit chemo his hair was about the only thing rising from the ashes.

Or maybe it’s the glow of the Sterno under Dad’s chin; the way the light caught his eyesockets like all those childhood flashlight stories about child murderers who targeted kids who kept their dad up all night by farting in the tent and then laughing when he told them to cut it out.

The tent went up in pieces and then not at all. Dad took two breaks while I pored over the instructions (“just need a breather”), and each time his hand froze mid-grab for a pack of smokes he wasn’t allowed to have: an emaciated cowboy getting ready to draw.

Or maybe it’s the way the turkey burgers oozed through the griddle to sizzle on the flame, beef like so many other things off limits. And how Dad forked out charred chunks of it and piled it onto a bun. Drew and I tried for solidarity but only got like two bites in before relinquishing it to a pack of hungry squirrels.

We had this thing where Drew, Mom, and I would gather firewood while Dad chopped. After Mom died, Drew and I would grab double our usual haul, gnarled sticks and kindling spilling from our arms and leaving a wooden trail. Dad showed us the angle necessary to cleave the wood at max efficiency, citing old boy scout lessons. He could only get halfway through the first log before he had to stop this time. Drew waved me off when I tried to take the hatchet.

Or when we finished our s’mores, my marshmallows of the barely-touched golden variety and Drew’s and Dad’s blackened beyond recognition. When Dad went to shut off the Sterno, how it fell from his shaking hands and tumbled, down a hill and into a ravine, still lit, pilot light streaking flame onto errant branches, the only word Dad knew then being “fuck.” How I remembered that only you can prevent forest fires.

Or maybe it’s how I slipped my concern in while the three of us peed on trees: Dad a captive audience, me insisting the clinical trials looked promising. That it wasn’t like it was when Mom passed. And the way he looked at me after he zipped up, like we’d just met and I’d insulted his mother. Eyes trailing over the burned-out hole where the Sterno was, after the rain drowned out the fire. The way he said he couldn’t waste away like her, his voice calm and quiet as if he were coaxing me to sleep.

Or Drew and I playing War with our old childhood deck. One of the Jokers in there with “oker” sharpied out to stand in for a Jack long since lost. Eating scrambled eggs with our hands out of plastic cups notched for alcohol: mine a shot and his a full cup. Me amassing a pile of Drew’s cards and Drew watching the way the cardinals dip in and out of view, under pine boughs and into the light of the morning. How Drew said he gives up. How I said he couldn’t, that we’d see the game through to the end.

Or even the damn fishing. Dad going bobberless because he wants to “feel it,” me using one and reminding Drew of the time we discovered that Poké Balls were just a ripoff of these things. How we used to turn every caught fish into a Goldeen, or a Gyarados if we were lucky. How Dad would sit for hours, his only sustenance watching the pull of his line across the water. And the way I kept asking Dad if we were through, with “just a minute” as his go-to for the next hour. Me swiping through my feed so I didn’t have to see him hunched over on a rock, chest caving in on itself. How Drew kept casting out with him.

Or his smile when he brought the sturgeon to shore, like his composite parts had been scattered and only this fish could return them, could put them back together again.

Or the way he goaded me to get in the frame for a pic outside the bait shop. How we all needed to get a hand under it. To feel the weight of this thing together. How it’d make a great shot.

And me flanking Dad, with Drew on the other side, wondering all the time if I should laugh, or cry, or just say cheese.

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Jars of Stars

Nora likes to watch the way the ants crawl in and out of Henry’s bootprints in the mud out back, climbing out of each one like they’re the grandest of canyons. Henry isn’t Nora’s real daddy, but they pretend the way the ants pretend that the bootholes are something more than what they are.

Nora sits on the back porch most nights, behind the screen, and all around her are the jars of stars that Henry brings home on the good nights, green flickers under fluttering wings and the way the red spots on the lightning bugs’ heads look like spooky eyeballs forever staring. The stars in the jars fly for the ones up above even though they can never reach them.

The bad nights are when Henry calls through the trees for Nora’s mama even though he knows Nora’s mama is gone. Bad nights is the new mud trail helixing back and forth past the first one, mud sucking up boots and Henry coming in barefoot with the mud leaving footprints that could be severed wings for the way they look, clipped and strewn across the kitchen floor. A big pile of wings by the fridge and another by the back door, where Henry puts all his empties. Bad nights is Henry on the sofa, crying for Nora till she can’t pretend she doesn’t hear no more and has to go and sit on his lap and hear the sad songs and smell the sour smell that makes her eyes water every time.

Good thing about bad nights is there’s always a good morning the next day. Mountains of oatmeal peaking from a milky lagoon and the way the stubbly lump on Henry’s throat will move back and forth when he drinks from his bowl like it’s nothing but a big cup. Mornings where sunny dew shines off the grass out back and dances in their eyes, when they will march into the hills, into the trees, and take the fruit they find there. When Nora finds the tiny apples, the two of them become giants stomping through a miniature world. These mornings are honey let to drip from the tip of a spoon, hours that drizzle over bread and glint against the raisins baked into it. Afternoons spent watching Henry split logs out back, and the way the wood on the inside is brighter than the bark, where the rain and the snow and the wind tirelessly do their work.

Some nights Henry doesn’t come back with jars of stars or helix a new path. Some nights Henry comes back with the stink of blood and sweat on him and an eye so puffy it looks like he’s growing another head. His voice and breath come out like broken glass down a garbage disposal these nights. These nights he has to go to work inside his cage. When he says cage, Nora sees him at the zoo, gnawing at the tiniest of apples and beating his chest for a crowd. She doesn’t see the referee with his dead eyes and hobbled leg, the other man in the cage with his prickly head and sour smell. These nights Nora climbs up onto her kitchen chair and brings a slab from the freezer, holds it to Henry’s eye as he tells her stories about the way her mama used to be before she went away, before even she had Nora, and these are the strangest stories to hear because Nora can’t see her mother as a young lady, waitressing to put herself through art school, scrounging up any bit of free time she can find to paint and draw and sculpt. She can only see her in the quiet light of morning, sun shining off her smooth head, round and full as a fresh hatched egg. Smooth because of the sickness. Smooth because Mama’s friend Key Moe had come to visit and when Key Moe came he took everything, even the hairs on your head.

One night Nora hears Henry making weird noises in the bedroom and when she goes and peeks in the door’s crack where the fading light shows dust floating like tiny negative stars, there’s a picture of Mama in Henry’s busted hand, and even though his knuckles are split and skin calloused he holds the photo like it might fall apart, and his other hand is under the blanket, and the way the blanket rises and falls it’s like the parachute game in gym class, and when Henry sees Nora he yells like he just lost Mama all over again, and Nora glides back down the steps, skipping every other one.

One night is an anniversary. An anniversary is when you can run down to where the wild borders order, with the spruce as boundary between your land and the great woods, and to pick dandelions and marigolds and the wild roses lined with untamed petals, and to string them together so each one balances the next. An anniversary is when Henry dumps out all the cans into a great big muddy hole, turning canyons to lakes linked by murky streams. An anniversary is when you put the flowers over Mama’s head and she can see them even though she’s so far down. When it’s time to laugh and then cry and then laugh again. When it’s okay if you mess up and call Henry Daddy.

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With No Hands

Mile 5: It’s Chicago hot outside. “Chicago” is an adjective that trumps ones like “very” or “extremely.” You ride the trail with Phil anyway because he’s leaving for basic tomorrow and Mom says you have to. Little rivers of sweat flow out to sea from the banks of your stubbly armpits. Stubbly because when Phil showed you how to shave, you took it you were supposed to shave there too.

Mile 10: You fish sweaty directions out of your pocket, unfold them like they point the way to treasure. You were out of printer paper, so it’s a palimpsest of CCD homework. On Jesus’ face it says, “Turn left.” Phil says a man shouldn’t need directions. A man should just know. You do mutter something under your breath, but you swear you didn’t because that’s an offense punishable by gutpunch. When you pass through swarms of flies Phil calls them clouds of flysex. You make a show of taking your Jesus directions out when Phil’s inner compass fails him.

Mile 15: The second shirt you sweat through is the one the recruiter gave Phil. Your lopsided perspiration turns ARMY into MY. Phil’s the type who needs a break forced on him against his will. You pull out a deformed juice box from the mini cooler that Dad smoked a month for. You ask Phil what did he want. You say it like that too, in the past tense, like he’s already gone. You pack away the cooler before he can answer, pop your kickstand and ride so fast the gravel dust kicks up in his face behind you.

Mile 20: The empty cicada skin in your hand glows like honey in the high sun, over Phil’s head as he “drains his lizard” and turns gray gravel black. Even at thirteen you consider the phrase crude. The cicada’s empty alien claws latch onto Phil’s shirt the way they would the bark of a tree. When Phil whips around, he’s still going. Some of it splashes onto your ankles. You find this is an offense punishable by eyepunch.

Mile 25: Your eye’s already starting to swell. Your failing depth perception tries telling you that faraway Phil is actually close-up, tiny Phil. He hits the last mile marker and stops, turns around, heads home. He grows in size right before your eyes the way the jingle insisted the little foam dinosaurs will when you “just add water.” You ask Phil if he remembers the little foam dinosaurs and he acts like the wind’s drowned out your voice.

Mile 30: Your chain comes off and your shoelace tangles in it and Phil cuts you out with the pocket knife he let you use that one time and you ask about the school Mom wants you to go to: Our Lady of Something. If Phil didn’t go there, why do you have to? Phil pulls out the one hitter he let you see that one time. You can take a hit if you’re not a little bitch about it. Phil holds a can of Coke to your eye after you’re through and you watch the way the cursive swirls away from you and into Phil’s face, the space behind it.

Mile 35: You tape Pokémon cards to your spokes to try for something like a Harley, but you only have a couple, so it sounds like leftover fireworks a week after the Fourth. Phil empties his wallet out. Together you tape on old gift cards, IDs both fake and not, legal tender. The sound effect is glorious until the tape fails and leaves a trail of identification behind you. You try to stop for it but Phil won’t let you. Try to protest but Phil says leave it. Just leave it all.

Mile 40: When you get there, always keep your uniform neat. Always be thinking of ways to be more presentable. To look better. And don’t mouth off. If some kid starts shit, that’s another thing. You hit him so no teachers see but all the other kids do. It’s kind of like prison that way. Don’t try to act smarter than everyone else. Get out of the house sometimes. Playing games all the time is just jerking off. If Dad starts drinking too much, don’t hide his shoes like I did. Let him go. (You mime like you’re taking notes.) And stop doing shit like that.

Mile 45: The gravel turns to paved and lined mini-road in the rich areas before going back to gravel again in your neighborhood. When the tires make the transition it’s like you’re flying. The handlebars wobble at first when you let go, but they steady out. They calm down. Phil laughs at you, but you peer pressure him into letting go too. You ask him if he’s ever done this before. He does it all the time. He did it when you were still in diapers. You feel like you could ride this way forever, with no hands. Phil’s front tire thrashes like a frightened horse. He gives in, grabs the handlebars. But he’s not scared. He just doesn’t want to show off.

Mile 50: When you ride back in it’s past pepto pink Chicago sky and closer to the way the world fades out right before sleep takes you. Where you’ve gone to there’s the tide melting into sand, marking its height against it like a kid on a wall, but horizontally. The kickstands don’t hold up on the beach, so you let your bikes fall. It’s late in the season with a kind of a chill, so no one else is out. This beach is your domain. The two of you own it. There’s a lighthouse so distant it could be shining from another state, way out there. You and Phil watch the way the fog takes the light and pours it over all the water. You let the sand erase your feet on the shore.

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